Congressman Raul Grijalva Discusses Anti-Immigrant Vigilantism and Racism in his Southern Arizona District

A newly elected congressman discusses anti-immigrant vigilantism and racism in his southern Arizona district

Elected in a landslide last Nov. 5, 55-year-old Raul Grijalva became one of 22 Hispanic members of the current U.S. Congress this January. Despite his freshman status, few people in Grijalva's district, which spans much of southern Arizona, expect him to sit at the back of the chamber and stay quiet. Grijalva's been an outspoken civil-rights advocate since the 1960s in Tucson, where he has run a series of winning campaigns — for county school board, board of supervisors and, now, Congress.

In January, Grijalva wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft, inviting the nation's top law officer to come to southern Arizona and witness the threat of anti-immigrant vigilantes in person. He called on the FBI to investigate connections between Arizona militias and white supremacist groups, asked the U.S. Border Patrol to issue a "declarative condemnation" of citizens taking the law into their own hands along the border, and began rallying other members of Congress to the cause of border reform.

The Intelligence Report talked with Grijalva in December, the day after he took a helicopter tour of the border with Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl and Congressman Jim Kolbe. The magazine followed up with Grijalva in February, asking about the progress of his anti-vigilante campaign.


INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Southeast Arizona has a long history of vigilantism and racist violence, but things were relatively calm for much of the 1980s and '90s. Did the recent resurgence of anti-immigrant vigilantism take you by surprise?

GRIJALVA: It looked like a dead issue for a while. But then you had the whole new U.S. border policy in the mid-'90s [when U.S. officials effectively shut down popular crossing routes in urban parts of California and Texas], which forced millions to cross the border through the Arizona desert, and it started again. I think what's happened in Southeast Arizona — mostly in Cochise County — is that there's been a kind of official tolerance of vigilantism, leading to the notion that it's OK. By tolerating it, you allow it to breed.

IR: Who is responsible for this official tolerance?

GRIJALVA: Local authorities, the sheriff of Cochise County primarily. Sheriff [Larry] Dever was on the helicopter ride yesterday, and I asked him, "Have there been no complaints about the vigilantes?" He said, "Zero." I said, "No complaints to the county attorney?" "Zero."

I said, "Hmm. You know, from [the anti-immigrant group] American [Border] Patrol's Web page and some other information that I've seen, you seem to be a supporter of theirs. Don't they tout you as being one of their supporters?" He said, "Well, they can claim all kinds of support. All you're doing is drawing attention to these people; you're making the issue bigger than it is."

IR: So are you approaching the federal government instead?

GRIJALVA: Yes, and I think it makes sense. If federal policy is driving this, causing these problems with immigration — and it is — then there has to be federal intervention.

The bottom line is this: You can't just allow vigilantes and hate groups to exist without a consequence. They need to know that they can't take the law into their own hands, they can't violate people's civil liberties, and they can't violate people's human rights. When there seems to be this official sanction by law enforcement authorities, this blind eye turned to it, it breeds.

IR: Like the kind of defiance that Chris Simcox, leader of the Civil Homeland Defense group, showed when he dared President Bush to come arrest his militia?

GRIJALVA: Yes. When he did that, there should have been an immediate response. Good, bad or indifferent on the immigration law, there are bona fide enforcers of that law: officers. No one else has the right to do that, nor should they have the right.

If Simcox's group or Ranch Rescue [a Texas-based paramilitary anti-immigration group] wants to call themselves "civilian patrols," that's a kind way to put it. The right term is vigilantes, and there's no place in this country for them. Vigilantes have never been successful, and their agenda has nothing to do with us trying to solve this issue on the border.

IR: Do you suspect these groups of any illegal activities?

GRIJALVA: There's a violation of federal law when you carry guns on national lands. There are issues of intimidation, violations of civil rights, and violations of the federal hate crime statute.

IR: Do you think the anti-immigrant groups operating in Cochise County have been encouraged by a lack of prosecutions in the past?

GRIJALVA: Prosecutions? There haven't been investigations. That's why I want an FBI investigation. Who are these groups? Who are they linked to? But really, the more light you shine on the cockroaches, the quicker they run for cover.

Besides, we're talking about hate crime issues. I'm asking federal investigators to follow our federal law and apply it to this region the way you'd apply it anywhere else. I don't think you'd tolerate this in Dade County, Fla. You wouldn't tolerate it in New York. You're not going to tolerate it on the East Coast or the Midwest.

These groups have had impunity, despite the fact that a lot of their leadership is driven by hate, not by any other reason. They use the excuse that "we're here defending the homeland," or "protecting private property," but that's not the basis of it.

IR: What do you think drives groups like American Border Patrol, Ranch Rescue, and Civil Homeland Defense then?

GRIJALVA: The strain that runs through these groups is anti-immigrant and downright racist. You look at their Web sites, their links — there's an ugly strain to these groups. They're intensifying and bringing considerable danger to an area that's already in the grip of a crisis, with the huge numbers of migrants being forced through the desert.

IR: There have been dozens of reported incidents in which private citizens have detained migrants at gunpoint, or even shot at them. At least some of these incidents clearly involved lawbreaking. Why has this been tolerated in southern Arizona?

GRIJALVA: Partly because of a double standard that is both racial and legal. The victims we're talking about are undocumented; they don't have the same rights as U.S. citizens. That has made it easy for the vigilantes. Among elected officials, I think there have been some political calculations about the support these groups might have; they're good at organizing letter-writing campaigns and making their support look greater than it is. Letters to the editor have been running six-to-one against me, for instance, since I started asking for investigations.

IR: That suggests some genuine support for these groups. Is that real?

GRIJALVA: I think it's pretty shallow, much more shallow than the numbers they boast about. But they are able to tap into a general feeling of anxiety in America. There's an economic downturn in this country, there's a recession approaching a depression, there's the threat of terrorism. In these historical cycles, there's always a scapegoat — an economic scapegoat, usually. Now it's Mexicans, "invading" and "taking our jobs."

So these groups, like American Patrol, very conveniently point to a target and say, "This is why we're in this situation. We have to keep them out of here, because look what they're doing to our jobs. We have to guard the borders, because of what happened on 9/11." They're appealing to that threatened feeling that Americans have right now, saying, "It's just them against us."

There is an appeal to that — the appeal of simple answers, and of having a target to point to. A lot of people don't buy their rhetoric, of course. There was an older gentleman in Douglas yesterday, where we were talking about terrorism and national security. When we broke, he came up to me and said, "You know, Raul, I haven't seen too many terrorists picking tomatoes in Willcox." What a perceptive way to put it. Almost all of the migrants are coming here for work, period.

IR: Why focus on vigilantism when there are hundreds of people dying as they try to cross the deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona?

GRIJALVA: The deaths in the desert are connected to the vigilante issue. Both are occurring as results of a failed border policy. One issue is the compassion and humanitarian support needed because of a failed policy; the other is defiance because of a failed policy. The reason for concentrating on the vigilantes is not just the threat they pose, but also the arrogance with which they're doing it. For us not to stand up to that arrogance would be a big mistake.

IR: If you were sitting here with Chris Simcox, the newspaper owner who started the armed Civil Homeland Defense patrols, what would you say?

GRIJALVA: I would tell him he's going to lose. Very directly. I would say, "You are an aberration, and you're going to lose."

I think there's a streak of decency in the American people. We can debate immigration, but there's a basic, fundamental streak of decency in Americans and this is not American. Simcox's group is the most un-American thing I've seen in a while, and I've seen a bunch. It goes to the basest part of people's character.

IR: How do you get people past that? How do you counter the rhetoric?

GRIJALVA: The whole border issue is being dealt with piecemeal, and that gives these groups — and their message — an opportunity to flourish. The border policy put in place in the 1990s is not working. It hasn't worked, and it won't work.

So what are we going to do? Instead of talking about "invasions" and using fear tactics and putting more military on the border, we need to talk about the root problems: How the Mexican economy has suffered after NAFTA, the historic patterns of migration that have been changed by U.S. policy, the history and culture of the border region.

And we need to explain that people are not running away from Latin America and Mexico because they want to flee their countries, or because there's some "invasion" going on. They're coming here for economic reasons.

IR: What makes it so hard to talk rationally about immigration?

GRIJALVA: Even within progressive ranks, the debate over immigration tends to float over into emotion. There's something unsettling for people about the changes in demographics. You get the English-only initiatives in California, the effort to ban bilingual education here in Tucson.

I'm not a conspiracy guy, but there seems to be an unsettled mood that the majority of Americans feel about what's going on around them. As much as we all preach diversity and inclusion and how we're a mosaic, that side of the American picture is not taking hold. And as you marginalize people more and more, you create the kind of breeding ground for racist violence that you have in Cochise County.

IR: Has your letter to Attorney General Ashcroft, requesting an -investigation of vigilante groups and asking him to visit southern Arizona, gotten any response?

GRIJALVA: No. But we are going to meet with the U.S. attorney in Tucson, to talk about the vigilantes. The FBI has indicated they are looking at things. And I'm working to get more of my colleagues, especially in the Hispanic caucus, to sign on to the letter to Ashcroft, so I can forward it with more names than just my own.

I don't know where my complaints are going to go, to be quite honest with you. I don't know if they'll fall on deaf ears. But the point is making the complaint, energizing people and helping them focus on this issue.

IR: You've asked the Border Patrol to issue a "declarative condemnation" of vigilante groups. Has there been any response?

GRIJALVA: Not really. But the Tucson sector chief, David Aguilar, did say something that almost approached a condemnation — that these groups are not useful and that they're in the way.

IR: After your election, Glenn Spencer's American Patrol Web site accused you of supporting what he calls the "reconquista" — the reconquest of lands lost by Mexico to the U.S. in 1848. American Patrol also said you were "in cahoots" with a "Mexican government agent." Do you see these as racist attacks?

GRIJALVA: Yes, I think they are. They don't want to deal with the issues, don't want to confront the issues as equals, so they use all this other stuff. I basically ignore that. By virtue of the position I have now, I've been able to say something and people paid attention. That's how I became a target.

IR: Some local officials have gotten death threats for speaking out against the vigilantism. Does that include you?

GRIJALVA: Yes. We got five or six E-mails about my calling for an investigation of the groups. The subject line said, "VIGILANTES INVESTIGATED," and the message said, "If you do this, your family will be killed!" It was a pretty organized campaign, because they were all form letters.

IR: Were you surprised or scared?

GRIJALVA: Certainly not surprised. I knew this was going to happen. And when it did, it just told me that I was affecting them somehow.

IR: Hearing about vigilantism and the current anti-immigrant fervor in southern Arizona, many people probably assume that this area is more racist than other parts of the country. You've lived your whole life here. Is that true?

GRIJALVA: No, not necessarily. All the local communities' elected leadership, churches and other groups have rejected the vigilantes and anti-immigrant groups. But I think that because of the tolerance level of local authorities, they've had room to operate and to draw attention to themselves.

IR: After two migrants were gunned down in October at a remote spot outside Tucson, sheriff's investigators said they were looking at both vigilantes and Mexican smugglers as possible perpetrators. Now they seem to be blaming smugglers. Are you satisfied that the vigilante angle has been fully investigated?

GRIJALVA: No, no, no! I think that one required a much deeper investigation. It happened at a time when heightened tensions on the border were occurring, with Ranch Rescue patrolling and Civil Homeland Defense and American Border Patrol starting up, and I think the logical groups should have been investigated much more deeply. That includes the smugglers, but not only the smugglers.

IR: Aside from the decision to push illegal border-crossers inland to the desert, what aspects of U.S. border policy seem like particularly bad mistakes?

GRIJALVA: The fence along the border. It was built as a cattle barrier, you know; it was never meant as a human barrier. Those fences were put up in the '30s, '40s and '50s as a way to control livestock. Back then, seasonal migration from Mexico and back was a way of life. But now we've put up these horrendous walls.

There's a restaurant in Nogales/Sonora where I've been going since I was a kid. I actually avert my eyes when I cross the border there now, 'cause the wall's right in front of the restaurant I eat at. It makes me sick.

IR: What is your biggest challenge in trying to make others in Washington see the immigration problem — and the vigilante problem — the way you do?

GRIJALVA: Politicians are afraid of the immigration issue. Terribly afraid, because people are talking about how "they're coming over, they're taking our jobs, and what about the security risks?"

IR: Given the power of the anti-immigrant lobby in Washington, what can be done to overcome that political fear?

GRIJALVA: First, somebody's got to speak out about the real issues. Fortunately, I represent part of southern Arizona now, so I've got a way to speak out about it. Which is good, because we haven't heard the other side for a while. You also change minds by talking about things that haven't been talked about.

One of the things I read after 9/11, after that horrible thing happened, was that part of the problem they had in identifying victims was that many of them were undocumented, working as cleaning people and as restaurant people in the towers. Interesting commentary. They perished along with everybody else. The tragedy is the same.

IR: Are you afraid you'll be a lonely voice in Congress?

GRIJALVA: No. I think that other members of Congress are going to want to listen to the vigilante problem and hear about the deaths in the desert. If we create enough attention, then we're going to force some reactions on the part of the administration and the leadership of the Congress. The only way to do it is to create a burr. If we have a significant burr in the saddle, someone will have to react.

Like I said before, the more light, the better. Because there's something horrific going on. It's a tragedy. It should be an embarrassment to our government. The more people hear about it, the better off we're going to be.

There's a big place in this debate for organized labor, for communities of faith, for environmentalists. If we can create enough interest among those groups, I think we'll start drawing some real attention to the problems. That's going to be my little task.